Mass dynamics of Weddell Seals in Erebus Bay, Antarctica

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


An individual's body mass is an important life history trait that may vary with environmental conditions and be related to reproductive performance. In this dissertation, we used a 35-year dataset to investigate variations in body mass of Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) in Erebus Bay, Antarctica with goals of linking environmental conditions, body mass, and reproductive performance. We predicted that variations in environmental conditions and maternal traits would correlate with variations in maternal body mass at parturition, and that variations in maternal body mass may be linked with offspring's body mass and survival probability. We found maternal body mass at parturition showed substantial age- and environmental-related variations. Maternal body mass increased with age through the young and middle ages, and evidence of senescent declines in body mass was found amongst the oldest ages. Additionally, body mass at parturition was strongly influenced by environmental variations during the pregnancy period, specifically body mass was negatively correlated with sea-ice extent and positively correlated with the Southern Oscillation. Annually, pup weaning mass was highly variable. Pup weaning mass was negatively correlated with summer sea-ice extent and positively correlated with summer Southern Oscillation, and these two variables explained 86% of the annual variation in the population average weaning mass. Weaning mass was positively correlated with juvenile survival probability, particularly for males, and we estimated the odds of a male surviving from weaning to age 3 increased 7.3% for every 10 additional kilograms of body mass accrued by weaning. Together, these results suggest large-scale atmospheric-oceanographic variations may affect Weddell seal maternal foraging success and ultimately reproductive performance. Finally, we investigated statistical methodologies accounting for measurement error in photogrammetrically estimated body mass with goals of developing techniques to employ estimated body mass as a covariate in simple linear regression models. We demonstrated that error associated with estimating body mass induces bias in regression statistics and decreases model explanatory power and we described simple statistical techniques accounting for measurement error in covariates. These statistical developments may allow future studies to employ photogrammetric mass estimation techniques and utilize estimated body mass as a covariate in ecological modeling exercises.




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